Willoughby: Steam shovels – every boy’s dream

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Steam shovel operated by Roy Nowers working on the Lincoln Creek Dam and Tunnel project. Aspen Historical Society photo

I became captivated by steam shovels as a tiny tot. How could I not after having “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shove”l by Virginia Lee Burton read to me multiple times. I am sure I was not the only one and even today it is a popular book picked by the National Education Association for the Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children.

If you don’t know the book, or have forgotten, Mulligan makes a deal with a city council to dig a basement hole for its new building promising that if he fails to complete the task in a day they don’t have to pay him. In the end he has completed the hole but no way to get his steam shovel out of the hole so it becomes the heating boiler for the building.

The age of steam produced multiple applications and larger and larger machines. Steam tractors were common. Steam shovels were larger and used for the biggest projects. The most famous was the construction of the Panama Canal. Mining was also a major user like the open pit copper mines in Utah.

The earliest references in Colorado newspapers involved railroad line construction near Colorado Springs and for placer mining near Leadville in 1902. The Twin Lakes Consolidated Mining Company put one to work dredging for gold. There was a reference to an 80-ton steam shovel. It is not clear if the shovel weighed 80-tons or if it could move 80 tons a day. Most likely it was the weight of the shovel as the steam boiler alone weighed tons.

There were enough shovels in operation in 1907 for the operators to have a union, the Association Union of Steam Shovel and Dredgmen.

Pitkin County acquired one in 1924 used for road construction on Independence Pass. Its boiler started a small forest fire.

Diesel gas replaced steam but shovels were still heavy and used for big earthmoving projects. It was big news when my uncle, John Herron, bought a used one for his Smuggler Mine operation. It arrived in 1942 and would have been brought to Aspen by train as that was still the major way of moving large and heavy items. His brother Bill was the operator.

The Herron brothers built a mill near the Smuggler tunnel entrance and its more modern milling equipment and methods enabled them to profitably extract more mineral. They were mining lower grade ore from the Smuggler tunnels above the underground water level, but the mill could also affordably process the older mine dumps that had small amounts of mineral, especially lead and zinc, that were necessary for the war effort. The shovel could load trucks of mine dump material faster than men shoveling.

After the war the price of minerals dropped, including silver, so the Herrons slowed their production and eventually closed. The shovel, already an old one, had served its time and no one wanted to buy it so it was left on the dumps where it had been working.

I, and the boys of my generation, were the beneficiaries. City kids had swings and slides in parks. We had a real, life-sized gigantic steam shovel to climb on and to pretend we were the operators. We played with Tonka trucks at home, but this was the real deal.

The modern identifier “backhoe” became the standard reference for that piece of machinery, but neither the name or the actual equipment elicit the same excitement that Mike Mulligan and the Herron brother’s steam shovels provided for my generation.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at


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